One foot in front of the other, a designing woman redefines her life path


Vanessa Gardner Nagel, is a fascinating woman - a tiny female designer of all things beautiful, and she wears red glasses – what more do you need to know?

Living in Minnesota, California, and Florida before moving to Washington 33 years ago, her Bachelor’s degree in interior design with a minor in microbiology, post-grad classes in landscape design, AND 45 years of design practice provides her the expertise to be a strong, knowledgeable interior and landscape designer.

She practiced commercial interior design in San Francisco and the Bay Area; commercial interior design and landscape design in Portland/Vancouver and now in South Puget Sound, garden design and interior design.

Vanessa has taught interior and landscape design at Portland area colleges and wrote two years of interior design columns for The Columbian in Vancouver, WA. She has also written two garden design books, published by Timber Press; Understanding Garden Design and The Professional Designer’s Guide to Garden Furnishings; both are available on Amazon.

In addition, she is also a consulting expert to assorted journalists who write about plants, gardens, interiors, and design and is a sought-after design judge for shows and design award competitions.

In 2004 she won the prestigious Sunset Magazine, Award of Excellence, Landscape Design Competition for her Pebble Mosaic Garden, and many other awards since.

This week she made my heart sing when she visited my yard and announced I was living in a redwood forest. (Well, forest was my word for all the redwoods that adorn our property, but she identified the trees.)

Her website says it all for me - Come home to ‘Ahhhh.’

Need a speaker for your club or event?

Vanessa is also available to speak to groups. She loves telling stories together with photo-rich, design-focused PowerPoint presentations (if PowerPoint is not available, she draws on a whiteboard to accompany specific subjects), inspires and helps audience members to become better gardeners, and create better-designed, more livable gardens.

As an engaged, fun, and interactive speaker she speaks to audiences across the United States on topics such as:

  • Interior layout and garden plan
  • Indoor and outdoor lighting
  • Material selection
  • Plant selection
  • Garden paths and interior circulation
  • Furniture and art selection

Vanessa is still working in both interior and landscape design in Thurston, Pierce, and Mason counties in Washington State, including Olympia, Tacoma, Tumwater, Gig Harbor, and Yelm. You can contact her at

And now she has a new vision…

Grieving the recent loss of her husband brought her to Olympia, where she began writing poetry as part of her ongoing healing process. Somehow the writing wasn’t enough and she was driven to begin a new chapter – illustrating her poems.

While she had worked in sculpture in the past, the painting is a new wrinkle. After taking a few lessons she branched out into her own visions and believe me, they are beautiful.

Recognizing that everyone grieves in their own way and no one timeline or path suits everyone, she has begun to paint and write. She explains it this way; “Grief is like an ocean. For me writing with an accompanying painting is the process of letting it go. Much of it is metaphorical and only has meaning for me, but hopefully, it will make people think.”

She explained one of her poems and paintings is called Kitchen Dancing. The memory of their galley kitchen and the bumping into each other in the small space became their “Kitchen Dance.”  Because of their varying backgrounds and homes states where they grew up, the accompanying illustration became a heron and a loon. The herons she had seen recently brought the whole piece together.

Hopefully, a book of poems and illustrations will emerge from this journey she has undertaken. Her process is interesting and would be different for each of us, but healing from the loss of a loved one is universal.

Gardens, of course, offer another healing place. Whether sitting among or beneath graceful trees, enjoying a hammock amid your flowers, or just taking time to stop and smell the roses…

One day at a time, one foot in front of the other – let the healing begin.

Kathleen Anderson writes this column each week from her home in Olympia. Contact her at or post your comment below.


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  • GinnyAnn

    Grief shatters one's heart. Taking each breath and living each day can be difficult when one's life seems to have fallen apart. Starting again by writing, gardening, or any creative activity gives a sense of purpose to a grieving heart. Pouring one's soul into a creative endeavor helps to patch the broken parts together again and restore the joy of living. I admire anyone who finds a new joy after grief. The grief remains, but sunshine and happiness can be found again when a person has a purpose and a reason to keep on each day. Thank you for introducing us to Vanessa.

    Thursday, May 23 Report this

  • KellyOReilly

    Thank you Kathleen for this story about this amazing lady! That garden mosaic is brilliant! I'm going to seek out Vanessa's books and keep an eye out for any presentations she may give locally. Peace.

    Thursday, May 23 Report this